Despair in the Midst of Jubilation
November 11, 1918
Annabel White sighed. The day stipulated that as a Briton she should be feeling ecstatic. After all one of the darkest periods in Britain’s history up until that point in time had passed.
On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Great War as it was to become known had finally come to an end. The sleepy English village where she lived had erupted in spontaneous celebration. Those celebrations in a way constituted a very large and collective sigh of relief. The war was finally over. The sacrifices they had to make in their day-to-day lives to fund that war effort had finally paid off, or so they believed.
Annabel, however, could not for the life of her muster any positive sentiment that would make her feel happy. She knew something that was personally heartbreaking, something she knew she could never really get over. Given her status in the community as a very sociable person, it wasn’t long before a knock came to her door and a member of the community came to ask her why she wasn’t outside on such a momentous occasion. It was her longtime neighbour and friend Susannah Corbett, “There are celebrations all across the village, why are you here? You must come out and join everyone!” she exclaimed.
Annabel just shook her head and simply stated, “Frankly I don’t feel up for it.”
Susannah let herself into her friend’s cottage where she sat in the kitchen, “My friend, I know it has been a very difficult few months. Especially for you with the loss of dear Allister. But the ordeal is over, you must come out and celebrate. We have won the war, Alfred will be home soon and he will doubtlessly be rewarded by the community for his hard work and his many sacrifices.”
Annabel nodded and forced a very mild smile. The death of her husband Allister had certainly been an ordeal that she found difficult to endure given their love for each other. But even as Susannah invoked the prospect of her son Alfred soon returning home from the front Annabel didn’t seem to be even a little bit enamoured by it. Susannah could tell something was up. She decided to go a little further in her attempt to cheer up her friend.
“You know Charlton’s daughter Clementine,” she said, “She really adores your son. I for one would certainly contend that they have a bright future ahead of them together. Who knows you might even have a wedding to look forward to sooner than you might think,” she said forcing a smile before adding, “The young lady is telling anyone who will listen that these celebrations aren’t the only ones that are set to transpire here. She’s saying that she is going to make sure your boy gets a hero’s welcome upon his return home.”
Annabel feigned another even milder smile in response to that sentiment. As they both sat in silence the distant sound of the festivities could be heard on the main street a short walk away. Susannah knew it was very unlike her close friend Annabel to be upset. Nevertheless, she didn’t want to probe her friend’s mind too deeply. If she wasn’t attending the festivities there was likely a good reason for it.
“I’ll be near if you need me, don’t hesitate to call over,” she said in an attempt to reassure her friend before she went out again to join the rest of the village to celebrate the heralding in of a new era of peace.
As Annabel sat alone in her kitchen she felt uncomfortable, everything in the house, including the mere building itself, reminded her of her absent family. She felt very alone. This was the first time she realized that she had actually had the time to thoroughly reflect on her life. It had had so much going on in it, so much so that she had never gotten time to sit down and take it all in and reevaluate just how far she had come since she got married 20-years-old. She looked at the last family portrait that had been taken before her husband passed away. It had been taken over a year beforehand. In it her son Alfred was awkwardly smiling and earnestly trying to maintain a brave face. Annabel’s expression, on the other hand, looked expressionless and Allister was visibly ailing. Retrospectively looking at the months gone by Annabel could see the time the photo was taken really constituted the beginning of the end for the family as she had known it.
She thought about war and the early years of her marriage. Her husband and her came from relatively poor backgrounds. Nevertheless, he was determined in his resolve to seek out decent lives for them. He worked hard in a nearby coal mine shortly after they married in 1899 and as the nineteenth century came to a close they had their first son, Alfred White.
When Alfred was only a baby Allister bought the family the small cottage that was located near the centre of town. He insisted upon getting a home in such a place since he knew that they as a family were very sociable. Furthermore, he wanted his son to grow up in a place that was at the very heart of the community. They would prove themselves to be an exemplary family, a family that were happy with themselves and their lot in life. The kind of family that would remind others that life was short and that it should be enjoyed for what it is, not for what one would ideally want or desire it to be.
Annabel garnered a close friendship with her new neighbour Susannah Corbett when Alfred was a baby. At that time Allister was in the British Army fighting in the Second Boer War in South Africa. He changed during those two years. Not in a fundamental way, but in more nuanced and subtle ways. His outlook on the fragility of life and civilization was doubtlessly changed by the horrors he witnessed and endured during his time away at war. He never talked to her about what he experienced and even though he didn’t say anything it was crystal clear to both Annabel and Alfred that it was something they should never ever ask about or bring up in conversation. Alfred had a very good childhood. Until the onset of the Great War when he was coming of age life in the town was good. But soon the strict rationing of necessities would come as it became clear that the war on the continent wasn’t going to be resolved within the space of a few months.
Obligations both at home and in the community hardened the young man’s resolve. From a young age his father was adamant about instilling in the boy an understanding of what it meant to be tough and why it was essential that one be readily able to endure and cope with the many stresses and pressures one encounters throughout one’s life. Alfred was indeed rigorously put to the test when his father fell ill. By that time he was 19-years-old. Already throughout the war, he had made it his business to maintain a brave face, to help those in the community bear the sacrifices that they were required to make throughout the course of that testing time.
In 1916 during the horrendously bloody and brutal Battle of Somme in France one local girl, Clementine Charlton, learned that her beloved older brother had been killed in battle. In an attempt to console her Alfred wrote her very succinct yet profoundly endearing letters. This eventually evolved into a correspondence between the two which each of them grew to treasure dearly. Throughout the course of two years, they met regularly after church services on a Sunday morning. Neither would admit, to each other, or even to themselves, how excited they were to see the other or receive the others letters. But by early 1918 Clementine Charlton became absolutely convinced that she was in love with the young man.
By mid-1918 however Alfred had ceased his hitherto consistent upkeep of the correspondence. His hasty explanation one morning after Sunday mass was that his father was very sick and he simply did not have the time. It was the first time that Clementine saw him flustered and exhibiting clear signs of anxiety and worry. The horrific global flu-influenza of that year had tragically affected Allister. A man of steely resolve when it came to handling difficulties and enduring pain this flu proved to be his Achilles heel. It directly affected his vital organs, shut them down and finally killed him.
During the last few days of Allister White’s life Clementine Charlton was heartbroken. It was only when she ceased receiving Alfred’s letters that she realized the profound extent to which she counted on them to make herself feel uplifted and emotionally positive. She also came to realize just how much she loved the boy.
Soon after Allister’s death Alfred, now aged 19, was drafted and would have to do army service fighting on the front. His mother was terrified at the prospect of losing him too. With her husband now in the ground indefinitely and her son about to go off to war where there was a good chance he too would soon be put in the ground she felt she couldn’t possibly be more distraught and worried.
Alfred too felt convulsed with trauma and fear at the prospect. Nevertheless, as a tribute to what his father had instilled within him, the strength of resolve, the strength of facing obstacles and overcoming them instead of letting them overcome him gave him a formidable strength from deep within. Accordingly he found the strength he needed in order to maintain an astute and resolute composure. He used it to assure his mother that he would return “within a matter of weeks”.
Before he was set to leave the village and fight on the front Clementine managed to corner him in the village square where she took him to into the quiet and tranquil public garden situated near the village church. It was empty. Her heart was pounding in her chest with trepidation. Alfred, on the other hand, was oblivious to what Clementine was feeling and what she was about to do simply expressed his regret by stating, “I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to write to you in the past few weeks, I’ve been meaning to make it up to you.”
She ignored him and after a brief moment of hesitation moved forward and kissed him passionately. It was a kiss that had only lasted a few seconds but was nonetheless profoundly intense for both of them. It was the first after all. “I love you,” she said half-stuttering as she did so, “You were always there for me, you were everything I needed when I needed it. Just please make it back alive, I’ll be here for you, I’ll always be here for you!” she promised.
Alfred nodded, he was still quite taken aback, he hadn’t realized all this time how much he had truly meant to her, nor how much she had really meant to him deep inside.
“I am, I have to go home, my parents they, they don’t know I’m here when you come back, I mean when you do return from the war, come to visit. I will have told them about us by then,” she said before hastily vacating the garden leaving him alone to ponder his thoughts.
The incident replayed in the young man’s head for several days and weeks after its transpiration. Even as he was being transferred and abruptly trained in order to fight in the very costly war of attrition. His daydreaming about what would happen when he returned was something that was everything to him as he readied himself physically and psychologically to enter the fray.
He never did return home. Annabel had received news of his death the evening before the day on which the Great War ended. She hadn’t told anyone, and now that the war was over everyone was openly rejoicing. Telling them now could possibly serve to hamper their relief and exaltation over the fact that the ghastly business of war was finally over. But she had to endure it, hearing those joyous festivities just down the road from the cottage that used to be occupied by her late husband and son proved to be tremendously nauseating.
Nevertheless, there was one thing that Susannah had said that did make Annabel realize that she did have a social obligation to venture from the confines of her cottage. Not an obligation to join the festivities. But an obligation to visit young Clementine and tell her about what had happened to Alfred.
Annabel found herself going through her late son’s possessions. In his bedroom the only possessions that were kept orderly and impeccably bound and archived in his bedside desk drawer where the numerous letters he had received from Clementine over the course of the prior two years. It was clear from the way they were so well kept that they had immense sentimental value to the young man. She took them with her as she ventured from the house, it was only right that Clementine has them now.
She left the cottage and walked across the village and with her head down doing her utmost to avoid catching anyone’s gaze. The atmosphere was one of immense joy. One of unity, one of anticipation. This day, the villagers believed, was the beginning of a life that was gradually going to get much better, even better than those pre-war lives in which most of them had yearned for the return of throughout the four very long and arduous years brought on by that horrific war.
Annabel arrived at Charlton’s homestead. Only Clementine’s mother Isabella was present. Like many British women, her husband was yet to return from the continent.
Clementine looked particularly happy to see Annabel and made a point of greeting her with a hug. She seemed quite jolly, “Have you heard any news about Alfred, when will he be here with us?” she inquired.
All Annabel could do was sigh before saying, “Clementine darling, I have something to tell you . . .”